Volume 5, Number 4
I'm torn. I have just finished this novel and have sat down to write the review, but I feel compelled to write instead an essay. That would be boring for you to read, though, and probably irrelevant unless you've already - and recently - read this book. I'll try to find some middle ground, examining theme and metaphor and technique without getting too technical...but if I don't succeed, forgive me - there is a lot of information swimming around in my head, jostling for position in an attempt to settle into some kind of meaningful analysis.
Father Emilio Sandoz, SJ, is the sole survivor of a Jesuit-sponsored mission to Rakhat, in Alpha Centauri, where humanity has at last detected the first traces of extra-terrestrial intelligence. After the disastrous mission comes to an end, he is sent home to account for the events on Rakhat and to face allegations of murder and sexual depravity. The novel is set up as a retrospective (which, by the way, is emerging as my favourite novel structure - characters living through a difficult present as they are forced to acknowledge, explore, and dissect the tortuous past) which Mary Doria Russell unfolds in her characteristic cryptic, uneasy style. This is another case of knowing the bare bones of what happened, but craving the meaty detail - the fleshing-out of the story.
You'll understand that last sentence all too clearly when you read the book.
There are a lot of characters in this book, which I also found true of A Thread of Grace, Russell's story of the Italian Resistance in World War II. It can be confusing, at times, to keep the names straight and remember what's important about everybody. It's helpful to read the thing quickly, though - your experience of the book would be much less if you kept putting it down and picking it up over the course of a couple of months.
If you've read Orson Scott Card's Hugo and Nebula Awards winner Speaker for the Dead, you'll find some similarities in The Sparrow. There is the Catholic mission attempting to reach and observe the culture of a forest-dwelling, outwardly pacific race of sentient beings. There is the moment when foreboding becomes horror as the characters discover the aliens' capacity for gruesome, ritual violence. There is the uncovering of cultural and biological reasons for the bloodshed, and an examination of how impossible it is for an observer to understand, in any meaningful or visceral level, a culture different from his own.
But the culture discussion is not the most striking one in the book. The really good stuff happens on the spiritual plane. Here, as everywhere, mankind is seeking God. And I was tempted to say "something higher than himself", in order to make this review palatable to everyone, but it wouldn't have been true. The main character is unapologetically seeking God. The deity. And not finding God "within himself", either, or any other cosy, feel-good, pat answer. He's not "in nature", he's not "all around us", he's not "in the love we give others".
Emilio Sandoz is already a priest when the story begins. But he doesn't experience a true vocation, a calling, until the first music is heard from the binary star system Alpha Centauri. He hears the song of an alien voice from the sky; the Arecibo Radio Telescope is his road to Damascus. His journey from that moment is inexorable: orchestrated, he is sure, by Heaven to bring him to where he can see the face of God.
He undertakes the mission to Rakhat not to save souls, not to bring a gospel, but in search of an answer to his own questions. The journey is the refining fire that will strengthen him, a vessel worthy of its calling, sure at last in the presence and the intent of the Divine. Like mankind itself, though, Sandoz steps, in innocence, on a path that will bring him not to enlightenment, but to utter darkness.
It all begins with the garden. There is beauty and fruitfulness, followed by bloodshed. There is anguish, horror, and a steadily mounting grief as everything good is stripped away. Even then, bound and stricken, the stumbling priest is sure that he is sustained by God's unerring hand. He can feel meaning, just out of his grasp but coming nearer every moment. He turns, before his captors, to see at last what he is sure will be the face of God. What meets him is not divinity, but devastation: the methodical and thorough destruction of spirit.
The Sparrow is an uneasy experience. It creeps into your chest and wriggles in chilly lines into the pit of your belly. Mary Doria Russell asks questions that she doesn't give answers to. She tells you dreams for which she, herself, has no interpretation.
It may not be for everyone, but it's brilliant. It's an intelligent and unflinching story that asks hard questions and, more importantly, leads the reader to ask the same questions. Mankind's quest for God is the overarching theme, but Russell doesn't take an easy path. She leads her readers on a gruelling climb, bringing them to the top of the mountain hungry, blinded by scorching sun, with bleeding feet. Then she leaves them there - confused, helpless, choking on the bitterness of betrayal - to make their own way down.
Half Soled Boots Highly Specialised Book Rating System
The Sparrow gets
Given to Others? Yes.
Bookplate? Yes. I only wish I had ordered a hardcover.
Thanks so much, all of you who commented with your favourite books. I used my good old hatpin to stab a winner...I was going to simply choose one, but began to feel responsible for the dejectedness that would surely result amongst the non-winners, and chickened out.
I wrote words from each of your comments on a piece of paper (freedom, impoverished, historical, individuality, utterly, despair, profound, cerebral) shut my eyes, spun the paper, and jabbed wildly. Congratulations to Rachel, who should email me with her address.